Twentysix Plants: Susan Mills in the StudioFebruary 3, 2014
In Susan Mills’ newest artist’s book—comprised of 26 sheets of paper hand-made from 26 different fibers—no two pages are alike. Some sheets are coarse, like peony; others, like rhubarb and leek, are smooth and even. Burdock resembles a healthy smoothie stippled with variegated greens, while kenaf has delicate hairlike fibers running throughout.
Susan spent her Artist’s Book Residency in November and December producing the labor-intensive and unique book twentysix plants, which directly references Ed Ruscha’s Twentysix Gasoline Stations. Minimal and literal, Twentysix Gasoline Stations contains 26 photographs of gas stations along Route 66, meditating on sequence, banality, and seriality.
“Twentysix Gasoline Stations is a road book from the perspective of a lone American cowboy with a car; twentysix plants is about staying in one place,” explains Susan.
It was at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design that Susan first discovered Ed Ruscha’s seminal 1963 book, which celebrated its 50th birthday in 2013. While studying video, performance and books in NSCAD’s Intermedia program, Susan was influenced by conceptual art and critical theory. She began to explore the artist’s book as a time-based, alternative space for art practice, likening it to “video for a shy person.” As her books progressed, she used less and less text, relying on a minimal approach to communicate her concepts.
In 1995 Susan came to WSW for her first artist’s residency to edition Ruderal Plants in Manhattan. Ruderal plants are those which first inhabit disturbed or destroyed landscapes, and Susan’s book uses a visual acrostic poem and screenprinted cityscapes to explore “plants that live on edges and in cracks” of New York’s steel and concrete. Incorporating handmade papers of abaca, dandelion, and burdock, Ruderal Plants in Manhattan can be seen as twentysix plants’s material precursor.“Both of these books are mature works—after I found my voice,” says Susan. “Both books get physical with the medium.”
twentysix plants is the latest of Susan’s recent projects to reference iconic art books by men. In her accordion book Interaction of Tantra, Susan takes illustrations and text from Joseph Albers’s The Interaction of Color (1963) and stitches them onto Japanese mitsumotta chiri paper. For Susan, it’s important that she, as a woman, references these men’s books by creating handmade pieces. Where Twentysix Gasoline Stations is slim and slick, referencing the mid-century camera, printer, and bindery as modern, mechanized modes of production, twentysix plants is rough around the edges, anti-mechanical and obviously handcrafted.
“I do think of the hand-making as female, in a way,” says Susan. “My books are definitely, for me, feminist statements. I am not really looking back in time at these books by men—more like creating my books as a parallel to them. I am referencing books that I love, and I hope that comes through.”twentysix plants also celebrates the collaborative nature of WSW’s studios and the uniqueness of WSW’s resources: all the fibers used for the book were grown and harvested at the WSW ArtFarm or foraged in the surrounding areas. At the ArtFarm, a small plot up the hill behind the workshop, locally grown materials can be used by visiting artists to produce unique handmade papers and to experiment with new plants and non-traditional fibers.
“Susan’s book represents the ability of the workshop to take on such a big, unique project,” says studio intern Caroline Walp, who along with our other intern Anna Thompson assisted with the book’s production. “The fact that everything in this book is locally grown is pretty amazing. It couldn’t have happened anywhere else.”Through the summer and fall, fibers were harvested, soaked, stripped, and cooked down to make pulp, which was then beaten from one to three hours before being hand-pulled as 11×17″ sheets of paper. For Susan’s edition of 50, over 1,500 sheets of paper had to be pulled. She needed roughly six pounds of pulp from each type of fiber to make enough paper, but the amount of each fiber that needed to be gathered varied from plant to plant; some produced an excess of pulp, and some very little.
Caroline and Anna worked throughout their internship to stay on top of a harvesting schedule and prepare for Susan’s arrival. They waded in buggy water for pampas grass, hung carrot tops in the attic, chopped down tree-sized stalks of kenaf, picked peony at Mohonk Mountain House, and emerged covered in brambles after gathering prickly burdock (which had to be harvested twice). Several plants were gathered and unable to break down well enough to be used at all. The project allowed experimentation with new plants and time spent nurturing the ArtFarm.
“This was not an experience we could have gotten anywhere else,” says Anna. “Being part of WSW’s experimentation—figuring it all out alongside the people who founded this place—was really great.”
The thick spine of twentysix plants reveals striated layers of browns, greens, and mauves. On each page, the name of that paper’s fiber is cut out in Susan’s handwriting, with the pages folded together so that the next paper is visible through the text : myrtle, daylily, sumac, sedge, and so on. In juxtaposing the unique qualities of each handmade paper, it celebrates not only the banal, everyday plants from which it was made, but also the care and craft that went into creating each book.
Susan Mills is a bookbinder with over 20 years of experience who has worked with poets, writers, and visual artists on small editions. She runs Full Tilt Bookbinding, a series of intensive single-session bookbinding classes in New York City, and teaches at Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, the Cooper Union Continuing Education, and the Center for Book Arts. She also created a biweekly community-based podcast, Bookbinding Now. See her work at www.susanmillsartistbooks.com and check out more photos from her residency here.